When someone invalidates the question being asked instead of answering
September 7, 2023 4:38 PM   Subscribe

This seems to be something rampant on internet forums, and I actually find it sort of rude.

For example, I ask,

"What's your favorite obscure fruit! I'm looking to explore eating different fruits!"

And someone answers,

"Don't eat fruit at all - it'll eventually kill you!"

That may or may not be true, but isn't what I asked. In fact I do not care about the dangers of eating fruit and I don't have time or patience to explain my fruit preference.

What is the concept I'm trying to illustrate here? My tired brain can't come up with the term.
posted by alex_skazat to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is called dead goating. At least here. The first mefite I recall saying it has deleted their account activity so I can't link to that comment anymore, but the gist was something like: FPP features a video with a cute goat. Commenter says "that goat will be dead in five days." Entire conversation is now about dead goats instead of the actual video.
posted by phunniemee at 4:48 PM on September 7 [5 favorites]

“Being an asshole” is accurate, although not precise.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:51 PM on September 7 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Dead goating, according to the wiki (MetaFilter apparently has a wiki!) is, "Posting a depressing comment in a happy thread." which isn't exactly the concept I'm trying to hit. It's the invalidation of wanting to even ask the question that irks me and I'm looking the name of the concept.

Another example is asking what your favorite beer is and getting answers like "alchohol is bad so don't drink beer". I don't drink alcohol, but that's not something I would use as an answer - I just wouldn't answer.
posted by alex_skazat at 4:52 PM on September 7 [2 favorites]

Hmmm, that sometimes the human desire to be helpful is so strong, people can't admit to themselves they aren't capable of being helpful?

I'd compare this to an experience I've had in a number of different countries - I'll have gotten lost, and ask someone where a given restaurant/museum/whatever is, the person pauses and contemplates, and then gives me directions that later turn out to be totally wrong. Sometimes hedged with, "Well, I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure..."

You also see people do this sort of thing in crisis situations. Bystanders want to help, when really they'd be more helpful if they just let EMS do their job.

Of course yeah, sometimes people are just trolling, but sometimes they really think they might be saving a life by warning you about fruit (hah) or whatever.
posted by coffeecat at 4:52 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]

The general term for this is to “derail” the conversion, but I don’t know if there’s a more specific term that’s about attacking the implicit assumptions contained in a question (or if there’s a further distinction if the assumption in question is generally accepted as benign, e.g. “fruit is good to eat”).
posted by Jon_Evil at 5:28 PM on September 7 [2 favorites]

This sounds to me like a relative of the XY problem, viewed from the opposite perspective.

It really is true that a lot of people tend to ask technical questions based on false premises without explaining what their real goal is, which leads to frustration on all sides. Unfortunately, other people (especially technically-minded folks) often overreact to this and assume that any kind of question is be an XY problem, and will take any opportunity to give unsolicited advice about what they imagine the real underlying issue to be.
posted by teraflop at 5:41 PM on September 7 [11 favorites]

This is pointing out a paradigm conflict. In my opinion, pointing out a paradigm conflict can be really useful in strengthening connections between people.

Rudeness implies intentional discourtesy. Sometimes, what you describe might be coming from a place of intentional discourtesy. Sometimes, it's just that pointing out a paradigm conflict can be jarring.

For example, if someone asks something like "I have ADHD and I don't feel safe driving a car, but I really feel like the responsible thing to do is to be able to drive a car, help me drive a car" and then I come along and say "y'know, this feeling you have of not being safe driving a car? you should trust that impulse! (bonus, one less car!)" would be considered rude in the US where this is quite a stretch of perspective. In some other country, driving a car under those same circumstances would be illegal and I am actually just pointing out a paradigm conflict that I think might be a valued perspective.

It's hard to accept that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.

Truth is valued in relationships. Societies are made up of people with varying degrees of shared worldviews. So when one person shares a worldview and the other person has a conflicting perspective, being honest and offering that different perspective can be a way of showing vulnerability and openness and willingness to connect.
posted by aniola at 5:48 PM on September 7 [6 favorites]

I just call it "ignoring the question."

I personally want the phrase for "what about when you ask someone if they want X or Y, and "both" is not an option, and they cutely answer "Yes" instead and you want to smack them?"
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:51 PM on September 7 [2 favorites]

It is similar to the third of Schopenhauer's 38 Stratagems (aka 38 ways to win an argument). The big difference is that you never intended to have an argument.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 5:56 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]

This happened to me here. I asked whether a person who is a lightweight re: alcohol, and was a trifle buzzed after drinking far less than someone with a higher tolerance, would blow over the legal limit in a breathalyzer test. I was clear that I thought it was an interesting question and 100% hypothetical, but quite a few people turned it into a lecture about driving buzzed.
posted by Dolley at 6:01 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

Reply guy?
Not quite sealioning...

Wait, I've got it: concern trolling. It's when they bring up reasons you shouldn't do the thing, allegedly out of concern, but really it's a derail.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:10 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]

I would call this rejecting the premise of a question (or questioning the premise, or challenging it, or similar).
posted by rollick at 6:13 PM on September 7 [7 favorites]

In law school, professors would call this "fighting the hypothetical" (they did not like it if you tried to fight the hypothetical).
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 6:21 PM on September 7 [10 favorites]

I'm with aniola - I think the intentions are generally good when people get accused of ignoring the question. People get really pissed about it, more so recently for some reason, but when someone asks "what's the very best proof that the earth is flat, metafilter?" they really can't be surprised or all that upset when someone points out that "proof" of an incorrect "fact" isn't a thing.

I agree this is probably best called "rejecting the premise of the question" or "questioning the assumptions behind the question."
posted by potrzebie at 6:27 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]

Seems like a type of whataboutism?
posted by danceswithlight at 6:29 PM on September 7

I can’t think of a pithy name for the concept but I think it needs one.

A response like that on or offline can be off-topic, a tangent, neither here nor there. Derailing and whataboutism might apply but I don’t know if those capture the…benign yet superior tone.

The attitude can be patronizing—could even be mansplaining if your question, e.g., shows you to be a fruit aficionado and someone “helpfully” reveals the shocking fact that fruit has calories, like a fruit aficionado wouldn’t know that.

I often see someone who has to weigh in on absolutely EVERYTHING. Like a boomer meme of four old fashioned sodas that says pick your favorite! Or one has to go! And he’ll reply “I don’t care for soda.”

When I see that, I think what, are they giving out perfect attendance awards for comments sections? Like you just need to see your name that bad that you’ll take the time to contribute less than nothing? So it could be Perfect Attendance.

On the school theme, I also think a lot of people treat internet forums as Debate Club for any general topic, and dealing with Debate Club nerds is a really frustrating experience for people who are there to engage sincerely and specifically.
posted by kapers at 7:06 PM on September 7 [7 favorites]

I just call it "people trying to be helpful." They're trying to prevent you from wasting a bunch of time trying to answer a question that doesn't need to be asked.

And there are times when it's very helpful. Just last night I asked my friend about scaling up computer images and his response was "don't" followed by a useful discussion about my alternatives. In areas outside of our comfort zone having someone give us some orientation can be welcome.

Of course, inside our comfort zone it's maddening. We know the general score, we're just trying to figure out a precise detail and some bozo wants to help us get oriented in our own backyard.

I consider it my responsibility to say up front which sort of response I'm looking for. On a site like Metafilter it pays to be very very clear on that point, and when people wander into the weeds anyway I just assume they either weren't reading closely or got really excited about a topic that is close to them and had to share.

In any case, it's annoying but I very seldom experience it as being malicious.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:55 PM on September 7 [3 favorites]

(I'm going to say it's very different when a trusted friend does this versus the op's example of internet communication with strangers.)
posted by bluedaisy at 9:59 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

Yeah, as a neutral description: rejecting the premise.

As far as reasons - besides the urge to be helpful to the asker, sometimes there's also an awareness that in a public forum context many other people might be reading the question now and in the future, so sometimes there's an urge to provide information that might be helpful to them too.

And sometimes people genuinely find the premise offensive or dangerous and want, or feel a responsibility, to refute it publicly.
posted by trig at 12:41 AM on September 8 [4 favorites]

Bring a contrarian, perhaps? I don't think people who respond like this are trying to be helpful. I think they are intentionally being negative. I also think it's rude in a "your favorite band sucks" kind of way.
posted by emd3737 at 3:18 AM on September 8 [5 favorites]

I'm similarly convinced that there's GOT to be some kind of term for this. It feels similar to ad hominem, but an ad hominem attack goes after the person ASKING the question instead (so for "what beer would you recommend", they wouldn't say "alcohol is dangerous, don't have any" they would say something like "wow, you must be a total drunk all the time" or something like that, personally attacking you).

But this is attacking the QUESTION, so I'm not sure...best I can do, here's a list of some different fallacies. Maybe one of them fits?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:35 AM on September 8

Someone in an earlier Ask or thread on the blue referred to this sort of unsolicited, off topic or patronizing/mansplaining advice as “hlepping” (that is, it looks superficially like helping but isn’t). Hlepping also seemed to be slightly more general than this exact situation, but yeah. It’s not the same as pointing out a paradigm conflict - that’s when there’s an assumption hidden within the question that the answerer makes explicit and questions; but in your example, you know your taste preferences or local situation better than rando internet strangers. This particular form of hlepping is obnoxious because it is condescending in that assumption by rando that they know you or your situation better than you do, and/or overlaps with mansplaining (is mansplaining when the gendered power dynamic aligns that way) in assuming you lack knowledge instead of that you’ve just tried to write your question concisely and directly.

(This happens to me on Ask Metafilter a lot. One of my asks got immediately so far derailed by a mansplainer doing this that it was so unhelpful and frustrating that I asked the mods to just delete it. I mean seriously, I shouldn’t need to explain my entire usage case and intentions along with a detailed description of what I do know and all the background research I have done in to get on-topic answers to the direct question “which of these three very similar cameras best meets the following list of criteria”. Sometimes I’ve given too much detail to stave off this obnoxious behavior, but then folks focus on the non-relevant details and don’t answer my actual question. it is rude, and unhelpful.)
posted by eviemath at 3:37 AM on September 8 [6 favorites]

I call it “That thing that happens when I ask a question about raw milk on Metafilter”. My theory is that it’s a way of saying “If you take this risk, it’s not a socially condoned risk, so don’t expect any sympathy if anything bad happens to you.”

That’s the only explanation I can think of for why my question about raw milk got so many of those people, whereas questions about alcohol (which kills and sickens far more people) generally don’t. It’s a socially condoned risk.
posted by wheatlets at 4:28 AM on September 8

Best answer: Over on some StackExchange subsites, the phrase "frame challenge" is used for this sort of answer.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:29 AM on September 8 [5 favorites]

> "frame challenge"

That seems like a good phrase.

For people trying to make this out as a 100% pathological behavior, please consider the following all too familiar question: "Dear AskMe: Once a month my boyfriend throws a tantrum and smashes all of the dishes in the house and gets very angry with me when I ask him to stop. Should I buy plastic dishes that are harder to break, or just buy cheaper dishes?"
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:58 AM on September 8 [13 favorites]

That’s a distinct scenario from the one presented by OP. In OP’s example, there isn’t a missing third option like in the above example. The closer analog would be someone who said that they were going to continue in the abusive relationship for reasons, and then asked for mitigating strategies. It would indeed be rude and patronizing to interrogate the question-asker in that situation (though offering support, asking what they would need to make leaving the abusive relationship an option, or similar responses would be appropriate).

The counterexample you want is if someone said they intended to seduce a minor, then asked for advice on how to do so successfully. But that is a very edge case, and the fact that preventing harm sometimes requires rude behavior doesn’t make the behavior not-rude in the cases where no harm will arise.
posted by eviemath at 7:20 AM on September 8

I call it "shitting on OP".

Your example and several examples here are quite mild and actually positive (eg. if someone asks about raw milk, I think it's ok to acknowledge the dangers of raw milk while giving an answer).

In some of the forums I frequent, it usually goes like:
- "How can I solve a tech issue with the application XYZ on OS ABC? Anybody have any ideas?"
and the answers are:
- "XYZ is useless, nobody who is any good anyway would be using it"
- "ABC is shit, only idiots use it"
- "Your equipment is shit, that's why you're having the issue"
etc etc.
and then maybe 1 answer in 10 would be somewhat helpful.

Obviously not a very nice community. (Thanks MeFi for usually not being like this!)
posted by gakiko at 8:06 AM on September 8 [3 favorites]

Thanks for asking the question, OP, I'm interested to see if a useful word or phrase turns up. I know of a couple people who do this sort of thing, online and in-person, and it's generally in pursuit of keeping conversational attention focused on themselves and their opinions. I especially see this in mostly-male groups, where asking a question that shows some lack of knowledge or experience gets ridiculed instead of answered.
posted by winesong at 8:14 AM on September 8 [3 favorites]

I'm super curious why people think this isn't concern trolling?

"Dear AskMe: Once a month my boyfriend throws a tantrum and smashes all of the dishes in the house and gets very angry with me when I ask him to stop. Should I buy plastic dishes that are harder to break, or just buy cheaper dishes?"
Dear OP, definitely buy cheap dishes since you'll have replace all your household items when you move into your new apartment in an undisclosed location away from your ex-boyfriend.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:50 AM on September 8 [2 favorites]

The OP’s examples are about new types of fruit to try or favorite beers. I think shitting on/interrogating/mansplaining an innocuous question like that, where the asker is a competent adult who hasn’t invited any debate or included troublesome context—like, I am allergic to all fruit, what fruit should I try?—while not even answering the question asked, is obnoxious and unhelpful.

And it’s a wholly different thing than some of the examples that responders are coming up with to prove that it’s not obnoxious. (Is that strawmanning?) In the “what kind of plates should my boyfriend throw at me?” example, the plates are the red herring and the other info provided is the key context. The equivalent would be the question: I like plastic dishware, what is the most durable in your experience? And someone answering that nobody should use plastic dishware because doing so enables partner abuse.

I do indeed see it here, to the point that experienced askers often add several caveats, like “please assume I have discussed my vegan diet with my doctor and I don’t want to debate the merits of veganism, I just want the best vegan brownie recipe, thanks.” They do this because they know if they don’t they will get a lot of obnoxious and unhelpful answers.
posted by kapers at 10:42 AM on September 8 [7 favorites]

I do indeed see it here, to the point that experienced askers often add several caveats, like “please assume I have discussed my vegan diet with my doctor and I don’t want to debate the merits of veganism, I just want the best vegan brownie recipe, thanks.” They do this because they know if they don’t they will get a lot of obnoxious and unhelpful answers.

I think there are two sides of this coin. Yes, it can be annoying when people don't answer the question asked. But sometimes people don't give enough context and sometimes there are obvious solutions that they've tried, and it's helpful to share that they've done so. Not the case in your vegan example, but maybe more like, "I've searched for vegan brownie recipes and the top several all require the use of a shiny pan and I only have a full pan."

It's also the case that the annoying/off-topic answers seem to capture our attention here. I have seen threads where twenty useful answers were apparently ignored when the OP pops in to express irritation at the one off-topic or unhelpful answer.

Sometimes the off-topic answers are when people haven't actually read the question (like when we suggest therapy when the OP included a line about discussing this with their therapist). Sometimes we are in such a rush to be "helpful" that we don't even pay attention to the whole question.

On the internet more broadly (like the site formerly known as Twitter), I think it can be a case of people not being able to just ... not say something?
posted by bluedaisy at 11:32 AM on September 8

I don't think there's really a name, but we could use one. Maybe rawmilking after a recent egregious example. My request for advice on a freestanding GPS system was similar, though I asked the mods to delete the offending posts and they did. A name would be useful because then we could just say, please no xyz and wouldn't have to put in a full paragraph listing replies that would not be helpful. (I think the raw milk one might have been OK if one person brought up safety, but as I recall, that was pretty much every answer.)

I sometimes put off or even decide against asking a question here because I have to throw in so many reminders of what I'm NOT asking, I feel like Homer Simpson wishing for a turkey sandwich.
posted by FencingGal at 11:37 AM on September 8 [2 favorites]

Clippying? (Picked up from this post, "How to give advice on the internet without being an utter menace"- she calls out this behaviour partway through, and suggests as an antidote to unwanted-advice replies in general having a little image of Clippy to hand.)
posted by Shark Hat at 12:53 PM on September 8 [2 favorites]

I guess it's similar to the "kritik" strategy used in competitive debating, which aims to undermine the opposing team's case by arguing against an implicit assumption it seems to hold.
posted by rollick at 1:43 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]

Concern trolling.
posted by dngrangl at 4:21 PM on September 8

From Empress's list of fallicies, I would say Appeal_to_consequences.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:46 PM on September 8

I think of it as "stealing the wheel."
Person A introduces topic, asks question,
Person B changes topic focus, answers unasked question, vies for control over the direction of the conversation.
posted by droomoord at 10:00 PM on September 8 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow - no consensus about this behavior? I'm super surprised:

I do indeed see it here, to the point that experienced askers often add several caveats, like “please assume I have discussed my vegan diet with my doctor and I don’t want to debate the merits of veganism, I just want the best vegan brownie recipe, thanks.” They do this because they know if they don’t they will get a lot of obnoxious and unhelpful answers.

Correct - I don't want to have to list the caveats. This last time this happened to me was when I asked about the runtime of a flashlight - benign right? How TF long does this light shine for?

The answers given were, "don't use your flashlight, use the flashlight that me and my friends have deemed to be the best flashlight!". And indeed, they picked a good flashlight, but I knew about that flashlight - it's a known thing.

But I was curious on the flashlight I had, and my use-case for flashlighting may be different than what they use theirs (because I'm weird and went to art school and generally do things in my own weird way - and like it!).

What then happens is a pointless off-topic thread where I have to list each caveat to why I just don't use their flashlight in my use case, which I didn't want to get into - and the main reason is "curiosity", where their reason for pushing their ideas is getting close to cargo culting. I just wanted to know the runtime of my flashlight. In the end, no one knew! But we had a good pointless internet argument about it!

Maybe "cargo culting" is the term I am looking for?

(chiefly computing) An approach that copies an existing successful approach without properly analysing and understanding it.

As many of you who write software know, a certain best practice can work for most use cases, except for when it doesn't and explaining your use case may only lead to a lecture on how your use case is wrong, wrong, wrong. That could be true, but it's not the question you asked or wanted to answer (if it was, that would be the question to have been asked!) This scenario drives me insane as being creative means coming up with solutions that don't have to make perfect sense - maybe the goal includes imperfection, or nonsensical!
posted by alex_skazat at 1:26 PM on September 9 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Over on some StackExchange subsites, the phrase "frame challenge" is used for this sort of answer.

This is a term that most closely succinctly covers my question, as far as I can grok!
posted by alex_skazat at 1:35 PM on September 9

I do indeed see it here, to the point that experienced askers often add several caveats, like “please assume I have discussed my vegan diet with my doctor and I don’t want to debate the merits of veganism, I just want the best vegan brownie recipe, thanks.” They do this because they know if they don’t they will get a lot of obnoxious and unhelpful answers.

This is indeed the worst aspect of Ask MetaFilter. I once asked a question seeking recommendations for pants with pockets. One person responded by suggesting I buy shirts with pockets. I mean, come on. Sometimes it's impossible to caveat a question sufficiently to deter this kind of nonsense.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 6:23 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]

I once asked a question seeking recommendations for pants with pockets. One person responded by suggesting I buy shirts with pockets. I mean, come on.

While I agree with you that this is a damn frustrating part of AskMe, I think this is different from what the OP is asking about - that sounds more like responders simply being unobservant or not thinking through their answers (and I've had that too, like when I asked if those Korean scrubby towels would be a good way to extend my reach and scrub my foot at a time when I had a leg cast, but instead I got a CRAPTON of people suggesting those baby-feet booties).

The OP is asking about a slightly different situation - like, if in my Korean towel for feet question, someone had responded to say that "actually, scrubbing your feet with anything is damaging to the epidermal layer, it's better not to wash your feet at all" or something like that. Or, if for your question, someone said that pockets were an upper-class privilege signifier and so you should eschew pockets completely.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:09 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you could give us more examples of the phenomena you’re asking about, OP? I don’t see how cargo culling applies to the example you gave, and while closer, I don’t think a frame challenge is an accurate description either. But perhaps I am picking up on aspects of your example that aren’t, to you, the main point, so perhaps frame challenge fits the idea you intended to convey better? Eg., to me, your example reads as more like “your favorite band sucks”, which doesn’t challenge a conceptual frame, it’s just a contrary opinion.
posted by eviemath at 4:46 AM on September 11

(Conceptual re-framing often involves an “oh, I didn’t think of that!” moment; but not every “oh, I didn’t think of that!” is a conceptual re-framing. I would expect that most aren’t, in fact.)
posted by eviemath at 4:49 AM on September 11

Response by poster: I think we've got some healthy discussion going on here, and perhaps my situation is more unique than I first thought!

Now that we've all talked about these nuances ways people answer questions, my specific use case is when you veer off from the norm. Perhaps there's an established way to do something, and to ask about a different way to do this established thing is seen as unexceptionally dumb (internet forums are as you know: not gentle places!).

As someone that comes from a creative background, doing something different than what's established just to see what happens is a precursor to a whole lot of good art - anyone who's ever got onto a Fine Arts track thinks this way all the time, and the questions come readily. Example: "what if I paint a house with... FROSTING?!".

If you ask this question to a group of house painters they'll think you mad. They'll tell you that you don't paint with frosting - you eat frosting! Frosting won't work as paint, it'll attract bugs, and wash away in the first rain - all very true, logical statements.

But as a creative, I find a house painted with frosting covered in bugs kinda f'n neat sounding, if only as a theoretical possibility. And this playful experimentation is a technique I like to employ for all sorts of things - usually it doesn't work out, but I find it fun (lateral thinking, in other words). Outside of creative circles and in subgroups that rely on facts/figures/numbers/spreadsheets, I just don't know if this is always invited or just an obvious idea.

I'm not sure how then to close that gap, without using any sort of caveat, but being upfront with intentions never hurts I guess. Something as simple as, "I'm experimenting with a new idea..." could help with some of the reframing - or any of the other concepts we're trying to capture and put everyone else in the right state of mind, since problem solving is a mode we can all switch into and it bypasses just given out the conventional answer.

If someone replies with, "just do what everyone else does", it's easy enough to come back with, "well, that's not the experiment", which I think is gentle enough to not sound rude, restates the purpose of my question, and doesn't drift the thread into an oblivion of caveats.
posted by alex_skazat at 7:57 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

This suggestion of "red herring" popped up on X nee Twitter today.

To me, red herring always meant a misleading clue, as in the Peter Whimsy novel "Five Red Herrings". An interesting coincidence, nontheless.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:57 AM on September 11

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